Tips for Managing Virtual Teams Successfully

Last updated: Sep 28, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has left millions of well-trained managers the world over wondering if the rules of leadership designed for a collective workplace still apply. Like the times we live in, the answer is not straightforward. Some things about managing personnel remain the same, but many new challenges, both operational and emotional, have erupted in the work-from-home ecosystem. If you’re an executive or boss in charge of off-site employees, we invite you to embrace the conversion to distance-leading with our tips for managing virtual teams successfully.

 

Tips for Managing Remote Operational Challenges

When you’re virtual-managing your team from your living room couch, issues with logistics multiply like dust bunnies. But the challenges of remote working can be opportunities. For instance, you don’t simply need technology to not be a hindrance, you need it to be your lifeline to your team, a daily small miracle that moves projects through the pipeline and encourages communication flowing back and forth. You don’t need your procedures to be nearly (or merely) as effective remotely as they were on-site, you need your new normal to exceed your old, making your team more productive and fulfilled than when they were commuting. Too much to hope? Not if you follow these five remote-managing tips to keep your team operating at an optimal level.

 

Female manager managing a virtual team on her laptop.

Establish (or Re-establish) Your Rules of Engagement

If you perfected a routine of meetings, conferences, and drop-by chats with your employees back when you were building-bound, you’ve likely had to adjust your expectations now that you’re all remote. But if you haven’t explained those changes, you’re making your team’s jobs harder rather than easier. Make these rules of engagement clear to your team:

 

  1. Working hours. Team members will have different habits and a range of domestic responsibilities, but everyone should know when they’re expected to be “on” and when it’s acceptable to be “off.”
  2. No-call times. Teammates should not feel on call 24-7. Let everyone know that no calls should be placed or taken (or emails or IMs answered) after, say, 6 p.m.
  3. Response time. Does your team know that only flagged emails from you require a response, and you expect those to be answered within 24 hours? Setting expectations reduces miscommunication and off-site anxiety that anything coming from your email address becomes an instant priority.
  4. Check-ins and meetings. Impromptu meetings are incredibly stressful for employees juggling laundry, client conferences, Grub Hub delivery, and a report deadline. On your digital calendar, schedule regular meeting times with each team member. If you’ve been hit-or-miss with your remote meetings, consider firming up a rotation of these three:
    • One-on-one meetings (weekly works for most off-site managers)
    • End-of-day check-in, if necessary, to set priorities for the following workday
    • Once-a-week whole-team game-plan meeting

 

If your priorities change, re-establish your rules of engagement quickly and clearly.

 

Run a Good Remote Meeting

Similar to a conference room meeting in real life, your virtual meetings need someone sitting at the head of the table to keep things on track and everyone engaged. That someone should be you. Run the meeting like a boss. Ask questions, make small talk at the beginning, gently and humorously fill those awful, awkward silent gaps, close with a friendly, encouraging tone. And please turn your camera on. If the boss is voice-only, everyone is voice-only. Turning off video limits participation and stifles effective communication. Your teammates need to see the expressions, context, and the environment their colleagues are working in. Go ahead, try to smooth down your hair and invite your team to see the stack of dishes on your counter. It’s not a bad thing for employees to remember that their boss is human, too, and we’re all struggling just a little to make this remote thing work.

 

Value Outcomes Over Busywork

The temptation to check login and logout times should be flatly ignored because you should be busy checking how well your team is handling deliverables, deadlines, and to-do lists. Time sheets still may be the metric your company uses for calculating compensation, but your priority should be on successful outcomes, not perpetuating a culture that encourages employees to fill their hours with work that does not add value. It goes without saying that the advent of surveillance software and never-off webcams should not be part of your approach for managing remote workers. Perhaps the Great Home Office Migration offers the perfect opportunity for your organization to rethink its reliance on monitoring employees and recordkeeping that encourages busywork rather than on output that improves profits, customer service, and productivity.

 

Share with Employees Any Shifts in Priorities

COVID-19 has rejiggered many a business plan since March. If, for instance, revenue is suddenly paramount for your operation, make the change in priority clear to every team member and every team. Such shifts cannot be executed successfully without full buy-in and focus. As these seismic shifts take place – for instance, a manufacturing firm pivots to protective equipment for medical units; or a nonprofit’s marketing unit needs to target high-end donors to keep the doors open – it’s critical that you get the responsibility math right. Meaning, your remote employees cannot keep adding tasks without subtracting others. It’s unsustainable, especially for employees juggling homeschooling and daycare duties along with their usual workplace responsibilities. Some employees might be thrilled to tackle new roles, but piling on could be the breaking point for others. Communicate early and often with your team about company-wide priorities and how to meet them. Adding new imperatives might require outsourcing, while you keep your staff focused only on mission-critical projects.

 

Recognize That Yes and No Are Not the Only Options

A crisis can often find us in knee-jerk territory, but mature leaders see the value in nuanced problem-solving. Suddenly remote in the midst of an economic and healthcare emergency, you may find yourself feeling very binary about your business choices: Fire half my staff or shut my doors forever. It’s rarely this or that. Your remote environment gives you the space to ponder your options, doodle in the margins, weigh the creative possibilities. Why not solicit feedback from your team? You hired smart people. Together, you might come up with something much more brilliant than yes vs. no, opened vs. closed, can vs. can’t.

 

Tips for Managing Remote Emotional Challenges

Like operational challenges, the personality-driven and emotional concerns related to leading remote employees can, in fact, present an opportunity for individual growth and improvement of your team as a whole. Sound impossible? Not if you follow these three simple sensitivity tips to help you keep your team focused, fulfilled, and feeling respected.

 

Take Care with Over-functioning and Under-functioning Employees

All of us deal with anxiety differently. Some people hit the gas and race through at 100 mph, doing more and more without a pit stop. Others slam on the brakes and forget that they do in fact know how to function even under duress. Both are reactions to stress, signals that you, as a manager, need to take seriously. When you see an over-functioning or under-functioning response, it might be time to give your employee a little extra attention, assistance, or intervention. Keep in mind that anxiety is contagious, so keep your own worries under control and approach the subject with empathy and positivity:

  • Keep your breath slow and rhythmic.
  • Don’t make assumptions; ask questions instead.
  • Practice calm.

 

The mental health of your employees (and yourself) is as much a priority off-site as it was when you were under the same roof, so recommend or take advantage yourself of any mental health resources your organization offers through its medical plan or benefits package.

 

Value Authentic Social Interaction

Isolation can take a toll, so it is important to make social connections a priority for your team, even if it is feels weird long distance. Video meetings can be a jumping off point, but should not be your only interaction. For instance, share a cup of virtual coffee with your team, order pizza to be delivered to every employee at the same time for your next big meeting; celebrate birthdays by having a personalized care package delivered; call on the phone to have a one-on-one conversation about anything but work. Happy hours and game nights should never be forced on anyone, but should be offered as a congenial option for those who want it. After all, working remotely should never make anyone on your team feel like they’re going it alone.

 

Make Sure You’re the Trusted Source of Information

Office gossip doesn’t die just because the office water cooler is out of play. Panic, hype, miscommunication, and, yes, fake news, needs to be managed. There is really only one way to do this effectively: Maintain rigorous honesty and be as transparent as you can be. Employees should not learn about layoffs, promotions, client difficulties, or changes in policy through the grapevine. Information, good or bad, should come from you. Business leaders must maintain their employees’ trust, must act as spokespeople for their company, and above all must accept the responsibility of being arbiters of truth.

 

Manager on a Zoom call with his employees managing a virtual team.

Great Leadership Is Not Location-Dependent

Remote or on-site, business leaders need skills to navigate the challenges of today’s marketplace. Our online professional development programs can give you the tools and insights you need to manage your team from anywhere. 

 

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